Margaret Atwood: Illuminating the Darkness

Margaret Atwood by photographer Liam Sharp

Margaret Atwood by photographer Liam Sharp

Margaret Atwood is a poet, a novelist, and an inventor. She was born in Ottawa, Canada in 1939 to Margaret (maiden name Killam), a nutritionist and to Carl Atwood, an entomologist. With her father’s research in entomology, her early childhood was spent deep in the forests of Canada. Always a voracious reader, she knew by the age of sixteen that writing would be her vocation. Atwood graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor’s degree in English from Victoria College in the University of Toronto, and in 1962, received a Master’s Degree from Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA.

In 1961, she won the E.J. Pratt Medal for her book of poems, Double Persephone. Atwood has also been a writer of feminist works such as The Edible Woman, published in 1969.

In Atwood’s speculative fiction (literary science fiction) novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, she skillfully delivers a terrifying tale of a female protagonist caught in a wretched social and political nightmare within an authoritarian theocracy set in a future New England. In 1987, she won the first Arthur C. Clarke Award for this stunningly written novel.

Atwood’s latest novel, MADDADDAM, was published in 2013, completing the trilogy started by Oryx and Crake, in 2003, and followed by The Year of the Flood in 2009. 

On par with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984, Atwood's poetic prose is timeless, dissecting the accepted norms of society, politics, and the human condition. In a quote from The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s protagonist Offred says, “We have learned to see the world in gasps,” a stark warning to never become complacent in our freedoms.

Margaret Atwood is an extraordinary person—a thinker and a story teller, using her literary talents to challenge our beliefs, carrying us on an allegorical ride through dystopian worlds facing environmental disasters and societal extremes—revealing the fragile nature of our humanity.


Hulu Premiere of The Handmaid's Tale

On April 26th, Hulu is premiering a new series, adapted from Atwood’s classic dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in the near future, the totalitarian society of Gilead has come to power in the northeastern United States. Facing environmental disasters and a plunging birthrate, Gilead is ruled by a twisted fundamentalism in its militarized “return to traditional values.” As one of the few remaining fertile women, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is a Handmaid in the Commander’s household, one of the caste of women forced into sexual servitude as a last desperate attempt to repopulate the world. In this terrifying society, Offred must navigate between Commanders, their cruel Wives, domestic Marthas, and her fellow Handmaids – where anyone could be a spy for Gilead – all with one goal: to survive and find the daughter that was taken from her.

Photo credit: Hulu

Photo credit: Hulu

This interview and the trailer for the Hulu series is available online at OMNI


Interview with Margaret Atwood [text]

K.E. Lanning: It's really an honor to speak with you—I appreciate your time.

Margaret Atwood: Thank you.

I'd like to start at the beginning. In reading your bio, your father was an entomologist, so you spent a lot of your early years with your family in the forests of Canada. Why don't you tell us a little bit about your childhood and any significant events that shaped you as an author.

Well you never know these things. It was a reading family, because there was no electricity and we were not getting any TV. In fact, nobody in the late forties was getting TV much at all yet. Radio; we could get Russia on short wave, for what that was worth. Basically, it was reading, drawing, and writing.

I was an early reader, and there was never a book around that I was told I couldn't read. That would include everything from detective thrillers to biology textbooks, to sci-fi, because my dad, as a scientist, got a kick out of sci-fi. He had early classics around, such as Karel Čapek, Brave New World, and HG Wells.

I myself continued on in the fifties with Ray Bradbury as he published, and John Windham also as he published.

Recently, I did a list of dystopias for Omnivoracious, on Amazon and Goodreads.

As kids we were into rocket ships and other planets, and all of those things that I suppose really started with Flash Gordon and A Princess of MarsWar of the Worlds, those kinds of books in the early part of the century. That turned into Weird Tales and other magazines of the thirties.

We had the funny papers. On the weekend, there would be a supplement and a lot of well-loved comics. It was also the age of comic books in the late forties—the golden age of superheroes. Not just Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel, but a whole bunch of other ones.

It was such a great golden age of [comics].

That's what people think now, but at the time they just thought it was bad for you, and that children shouldn't read them. That's when the comic’s code came in, but unfortunately for them, it only applied to colored comics, and you could still get the crime and horror in black and white.

They felt it wasn't as bad in black and white?

I don't know what they thought. It was actually worse. It didn't look as fake.

I was also reading that by the age of 16, you had already decided that writing would be your profession.

Vocation. There wasn't any chance of it being a profession, a profession for which you got paid. This as Canada in the fifties, you have to understand. You didn't expect to actually make any money out of it, so I had a brief flirtation with something called Writer's Magazine in which they listed in the back all of the places where you could sell things to magazines. The thing that paid the most was true romance, so I thought maybe I would write true romance in the day, and then in the evenings I would write my literary masterpieces, but that did not go very far because I wasn't actually up to the task. I could not do the vocabulary, which included at that time a lot of asterisks, and sentences like, and then they were one..... That I could not do. Things happened on sofas in those magazines.

These would be the stories in which there would be two male suitors, one would work at a shoe store and the other would have a motorcycle, and you just know what happens then. Wuthering Heights, only in modern setting.

You've gone over some of the writers that you enjoyed as a kid, but I was wondering, are there any other authors that you consider primary influences to your writing?

Apart from the fact that I read all of Edgar Allen Poe at too early an age—it was in the children's library section because it didn't have any sex in it. Who made that decision? I understand now, because I just did an introduction to a book of his. Ray Bradbury did the same thing—Poe was an early influence. I don't know whether you've read all of Poe, but some of it is terminally gruesome.

I know that in some of your discussions you've talked about having elements of environmentalism and humanism in your work. I was just curious [on your thoughts].

I would say environmentalism I grew up with—it's just part of biology. I'm not sure what humanism mean? I've never quite known.

The definition of humanism changes through history. In some definitions it's sort of an acceptance of you as a human and accepting everything about being a human, and not necessarily being obsessed with religion to the point of conflict with our humanness.

I'm a strict agnostic, by which I mean there's a difference between what you can know, which has to do with the physical word, and what you can't know. What you can't know remains an open question. Those things are a matter of faith, and there's just a difference between faith and knowledge.

Yes. I think that when you have religion that carries a club to beat the human out of you, then there's something wrong with it.

But that's just one use of religion. It's a narrative subset, by which I mean you can tell by looking at what kids do under the age of three or four what's in the human package. We know that language acquisition, and music and rhythm, and storytelling, and visual imagery—kids will do that very readily. They just pick it up.

A narrative, something that only human beings do, started pretty early to tell stories about where did we come from and what happens to us in the future, and Rover the dog will never do that. Rover the dog will never say, as far as we know, what was the origin of dogs, where did dogs come from, and will never say what will happen to me personally, Rover, when I die. But human beings do that all the time.

There are all of these different narratives, and there have been very many of them, and because there have been very many of them, it's no good saying to people you shouldn't do that, because it seems to be something that people do. If there shall be religion, which it appears that there shall be, let's hope that it is a good one, and not used as a hammer.

You probably say, well they're [ideologies]are a form of religion, or you could say that religions are a form of ideology, whichever you prefer, but when there is a belief system that gives you the permission to kill other people who don't share it, that's the negative aspect. But let us not be blind to the fact that there are positive aspects.

It's one of the things that sci-fi does all the time, makes up other religions.

Speaking of science fiction, I was interested in a discussion that I read that you were talking about the term science fiction as a genre, and the difficulty with that, and you feel like that what your work is speculative fiction.

Or we could just call it [sci-fi and speculative fiction] two different things. We can call it apples and oranges. Apples take place on other planets and have spaceships in them, and oranges take place on planet earth and have to do with what we're doing here now and only the technologies that we already have got our hands on. There's a difference in kind between those two things. I know that when I go to the sci-fi shelf, I expect there to be other planets. To avoid disappointment, because when I buy a package of bran flakes, I want there to actually be bran flakes in the box, to avoid disappointment, I feel they should be called something else.

I agree. I've had definitely difficulty with that myself. I think it's really more, from what I've been able to tell, agents and publishers that are more interested in keeping it within a genre to a certain extent.

As booksellers, they want to know what shelf to put it on. Which is annoying—Ursula Le Guin has quite a lot to say on the subject and I would agree with her that there are not bad genres, there are only bad books.

Margaret, one of the things I was really interested in is the fact that you're both a poet and a novelist. Really, your poetic prose is just stunning. I was wondering if you could just discuss a little bit your journey as a writer.

I don't know whether I have one. I'm so old that there were no creative writing schools.

I think Iowa had started, and in the early sixties one at the University of British Columbia had started, but that was it. We were not encouraged to think in terms of my journey as a writer. We were not at all encouraged in that direction. We were encouraged, if anything, if you were in academia, encouraged not to let on.

People a generation before mine had done things like gone to Paris. In the thirties people would go to Paris. People of my generation were pretty much led to understand, and this is Canada in the late fifties, that if you wanted to be an artist you needed to go to New York or London. If you were from Quebec, you needed to go to Paris.

Being perverse, I thought maybe I would go to Paris and live in a garret, drink absinthe, smoke, and get TB, and write masterpieces and work as a waitress, but that didn't happen. Although I did later work as a waitress.

It was not about my journey as a writer. It was about how do I support myself if I want to do this? That was what it was about. Then do you get a job that has something to do with writing, in which case you might use up all your writing energy doing that job, or do you get some other job that is not related? People have done both, like working in a bank and being a real estate agent or something.

In my generation, in the sixties in Canada, there weren't very many women writers, and writers were told things by other writers such as, in order to really understand the world, you have to be a truck driver. Except for me. As far as I know, they're not hiring girls yet. Anyway, I can't drive, so it was like that.

I think my journey as a writer consisted of not doing what other people told me I should do.

You really craft your characters very well, and I don't know if you could comment a little bit on how you're approaching your character development.

I think that people in sci-fi are people. Maybe you should try to make them as much like people as possible, unless they're of course an altered life form, in which case you make them like that. I don't think there's any big mystery to it. There was an age of sci-fi, I guess hard rocket ship sci-fi, that I wasn't terribly interested in. I was always more interested in people-centered stories, some of which were just pretty much fantasy under another name. They could all be classed as wonder tales, things that are not going to happen in real life. Under that huge umbrella you could put vampire stories, and werewolf stories, and Frankenstein, though we're getting a bit closer to that, Frankenstein and R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots) and all of them, you can call them wonder tales, but they do deal with age old motifs. I think that a lot of sci-fi got its main stories from mythology.

That's a good observation.

I'm not alone in thinking that. It's not an original thing with me.

One of your extraordinary books is The Handmaid's Tale, which was made into a film in 1990, and now Hulu has developed a series based on that novel, releasing on April 26th. I'm just curious how you feel about your work being adapted to the screen and how involved you've been in the process.

I worked in film and television in the seventies quite a bit, so I know the pitfalls and challenges, and in what ways a novel is not the same as a film or television. Right now we're in an age in which the well-produced series has really carved out a chunk, and it allows you to explore a longer work in depth, and follow characters in ways that you would not be able to do in a 90 minute film.

Whenever a new platform comes along, there's a huge burst of creativity as people explore it and build it out, and that is certainly happening right now.

I saw the trailer, and it looks really interesting.

Yes. I think in my opinion, it's pretty strong. If we're letting me be less Canadian about it, it's very strong.

I had an American writer friend who came up here and he said, they don't like my book. I said, they loved your book. He said, how can you tell? I said, the thing is that ‘not bad at all’ in Canadian is the equivalent of American, ‘best thing since sliced bread’, ‘stupendous’, ‘magnificent’, ‘never been equaled’. It means the same.

You have to have the Canadian to American translator?

Yeah. I think some of the poor Americans need it, whereas the Canadians, of course if they go down there, they think they've been elevated to the status of a god.

Speaking of that, you are a real icon of the literary world, and I was just curious, what do you feel is your legacy?

Are we talking about me being dead now? Is that the subject?

We're trying to get the words down before then.

You never actually know until you are dead, and you probably aren't going to know that either, but other people will know.

Legacies come and go, because everybody is always in the present moment, so it's a bit presumptuous to say that you will have a legacy that will be the same forever and ever, because it won't be. Typically what happens when somebody fairly well known dies is there is a bust of interest in their work, and then it either sinks into oblivion, never to be seen again, or it sinks into oblivion and then makes a comeback a little bit later.

Is there any message that you have tried to put forth [in your writing]?

How we were taught poetry in high school, we were taught what is the poet trying to say, which meant that we thought, why do they have to spend all those words if what the poet was trying to say was war is hell? Why couldn't they just blurt it out instead of putting us through a sonnet?

I don't go in for telling the reader what the message is, because everybody reads in an individual way, and takes away something that has something to do with what they brought to it, or let us say that the reader is the violinist of the book. Every reader is reading the same book, but each interpretation of that book is going to be different, so I strenuously avoid telling the reader what I prescribe the message to be, since my job as a writer is making a world that is as complete as I could make it.

I did write a book called originally Negotiating with the Dead, but the publishers were put off by the dead word and changed the title to A Writer on Writing. Squeamish, aren't they? In the beginning, in the introduction I said, first of all, I tried to figure out what all of these writer's motives were, dead writers and living ones, and it was everything from to justify the ways of God to man, or to get back at the people who were mean to me in high school, or it could be both. I think my favorite was a Czech writer who said, “I want to make a boudoir so that the reader can go into it and have fun.” I thought, that's no good.

There's a big leap between a boudoir for fun and to justify the ways of God to man. Instead I asked myself, and dead and living writers, what's it like to go into a book? I was looking at the beginnings of things, and everything from, I was wandering in a dark wood to Virginia Woolf saying writing a novel is like going into a dark room and holding up a lantern which illuminates things that were already there. All of the answers had something to do with going into the dark and illuminating something.

That's what writers do, in my opinion. You go into the dark, you go into an unknown, which is the thing you're trying to write, and then you attempt to illuminate it and bring something back into the light.

That's wonderful. I love the way you say that.

I believe I heard that you're writing a new novel. Is that correct? Is that what's next on the horizon for you?

I'm very cagey about saying what I'm doing. Once upon a time I did say what I was doing, and then, of course, I didn't do it, and I got an endless number of questions. But you said you were going to do that, why didn't you do it? There's no point saying what you're going to do until you've actually done it. For the same reason, I never actually tell my publishers what's going to be in my next book, because they would probably make horrified sounds. They usually want you to write the book you just wrote.

Margaret, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me, and best of luck!

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

My sincere thanks to Margaret Atwood for graciously agreeing to my interview, and to Lucia Cino, Melinda Casey, Lauren Thorpe, and Phoebe Larmore for all of your help.

The Ascent of Robots

In 1950, Isaac Asimov published the novel, I, Robot, and within that work, he outlined his “Three Laws of Robotics”:

First edition cover (1950) of I, Robot

First edition cover (1950) of I, Robot

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.


Humanity is on the cusp of a true robot revolution—will we be so prescient?

The technology shift in labor started with the computer age in the late twentieth century, but intelligent robots will be the coup d’etat for the labor market. Others are writing about this coming phenomenon: science fiction writer Liu Cixin is a nine-time winner of the Galaxy Award in China for his work and recently penned an article for The New York Times, titled, “The Robot Revolution Will Be the Quietest One.” [] He writes of a world run by robots more intelligent than we are…a world where humans become no more significant than pets.

Will society re-segregate not on lines of race, but divided between the rich upper class, the robots they control, and ‘the rest of us’? Or perhaps we’ll witness a societal backlash, with a new rise of Luddites rioting in the streets, destroying robots, while crowds chant as they upload the scene to social media?

Luddites destroying looms in the 1800s to protest the Industrial Revolution

Luddites destroying looms in the 1800s to protest the Industrial Revolution


But the Luddites didn’t prevail at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and neither will the coming Rage Against Robots.

Is it all gloom and doom? We humans have survived the industrial and computer revolutions, shifting with an ever-changing labor market, though there have been winners and losers in the game. There will be a huge demand for the care and maintenance of robots—feeding those brains with code and repairing the intricate mechanisms—harking back to a time when our ancestors cared for the faithful plow horse.

But one major impediment stands in our way—we humans are populating ourselves out of a planet even without the competition of robots. On our current trajectory in propagating the Earth, we will overload the boat and sink into the sea from where we came, unless we stabilize our population growth and find sustainable methods of living. The world populations must embrace education and birth control—our survival depends on it.



Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

And change we must, because the Ascent of Robots is upon us.



K.E. Lanning, author of speculative science fiction and scientist

First published on January 26, 2017, in OMNI


Rest in Peace, Edward

The world knows Edward Albee as an incredible playwright—his wry and acerbic wit revealing those dark human characteristics that no one wants to be revealed. He was a teacher, a mentor, and a supporter of the arts. This last avenue, in the vibrant art scene of Houston, is where Edward and I crossed paths. It was the 1990s; he was teaching at the University of Houston and producing his plays in various venues. I had an art gallery in Houston, TX, and I came to know Edward as a discerning and well-respected art collector.

I saw a show of some of his collection at the Hiram Butler gallery in Houston; it was a lovely exhibit and I was intrigued by the scope and depth of the artwork. His eye was phenomenal and he focused on up and coming artists with a message to tell. About that same time, I had begun curating a series of shows based on books that interested me in the content and title: The Garden of Eden (Ernest Hemingway), Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), and Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (Mackay), as a few examples. I invited various artists from the unknown to the world famous to exhibit—they drew crowds—and Edward. After the opening of the Brave New World show, he wrote a letter to me asking a question on one of the pieces and we started a dialogue about the social implications of the show.  

Edward began to frequent the gallery and I remember on several occasions, he would find some small sculpture in the back gallery (he loved three-dimensional work), cradling it in his arms as he toured around. He bought several pieces from the gallery and always stopped to chat when we ran into each other on the gallery circuit.

After I closed the gallery and began to find my voice in writing, he spoke with me about that, too. Our conversation wasn’t huge or life-changing, but sometimes having someone like Edward simply acknowledge your journey is enough.

Edward, you made a difference in my life. Thank you, and rest in peace, my friend.


K.E. Lanning

It’s Going to be a Bumpy Night…

Recently, I was watching the movie, All About Eve, and loving the high drama of stage life full of back-stabbing and theatrics. Then I thought about the election year… damn… what a parallel. A few juicy quotes from that film tell the tale of the insane politics we’re living through.

Politics is always nuts, but how did we get this out of whack? Fear and anger have pushed not only the country but the world into dangerous ground. Fear and anger born of economic instability brewing for decades and now coming home to roost. The cocks are crowing and the eggs have been laid for foment. World War II sprang from the Great Depression; can we control the instability of the world so the ominous specter of another world war doesn’t rise? Is the turmoil in the Middle East the fire or the match?

The rise of anger has been manipulated by Trump for pure self-interest but he did not create it. He hides his flaws while exposing the weaknesses of his opponents. Bette Davis’ character, Margo Channing eloquently says, “In this rat race, everybody’s guilty until they’re proved innocent.”

Hillary is no angel either. Maybe she’s channeling Bette Davis… “The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster.” Clinton has experience and is probably as nasty as any other world leader; perhaps she deserves to be president. After all, “Everyone has a heart—except some people.”

And bizarrely, the populist breeze creates an atmosphere where the candidates trot across the stage expounding on how they ‘know your pain’ as if they were average folks. In a paraphrased line from All About Eve from the theater critic character, “This ignores the fact that their greatest attraction to the public is their complete lack of resemblance to normal human beings.”

It’s been a slimy presidential race to the bottom. God, I’ll be glad when election evening is here. But fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night…

K.E. Lanning


Your soul doesn't know what color you are

Your soul doesn’t know what color you are.

Nor does it know if you’re female or male. It just is. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Your soul is precious and needs to be fed, watered and protected. Don’t do things which damage your soul—don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t needlessly hurt someone, including yourself. In other words, follow the golden rule: do unto others what you would want others to do unto you. It’s really that simple.

Do not blame your parents for problems with your soul. They are human, too, so perhaps they weren’t the best at that difficult job—forgive them—it’s good for your soul.

I once read that our personalities consist of three parts: Adult, Parent, and Child. Three aspects of our personalities, but we only have one soul.

Adult:  Show self-restrain, put others above your childish interests and you will thrive.

Parent:  Exponential of the above and your children will thrive.

Child:  Have fun, learn something and you will thrive.

Your soul needs you to let it bloom into the beautiful flower it was meant to be—always grab opportunities to grow. If you feel stifled, you need to move to better soil.

Even if the epiphany of acknowledging your soul comes late, it doesn’t matter—your soul doesn’t age.

Your soul doesn’t know how old you are, either.


K.E. Lanning


Let's Start Dreaming Again.....

I’m a scientist, I am a thinker, and a lover of art and nature. I have worked in the energy biz for thirty-five years, seeing the peaks and valleys of the volatile petroleum industry, as I mapped the peaks and valleys beneath the surface. I tell people that what I do are jigsaw puzzles with no picture on the front.          

Petroleum is a natural deposit of stored potential energy from carbon based plants which nature has already cooked and stored for us. An odd fact is, because petroleum became available to burn lamps, whaling stopped and so ironically, the oil industry saved the whales. Petroleum energy has carried us from horse and buggy into the industrial and computer ages, but the caveat to it is the pollution it causes, which must be controlled. And though using corn or other carbon based crops, augments our supply of gasoline, it is far from being a “green” energy source, since it must be planted and cultivated with heavy diesel equipment, then energy used to process it to turn into fuel. In addition, it takes land away from crops and sucks corn, a major feed crop, into the volatile price gyrations of the oil market. Not a smart idea, in my opinion, to add instability into our food sources.

Specifically, I work in the natural gas industry, but being an objective scientist, I believe that of the petroleum energy choices we have for electric power generation: coal, oil, and natural gas, that natural gas is the least polluting of these energy sources. It simply has fewer molecules to break off during the burning process than heavier oil and coal. And until we find that energy source to take the place of the magnitude of power that Mother Nature gave us, I feel that natural gas is the best choice of the petroleum products for electric power production, at this time. Intelligent regulation of fracking and water use could serve to mitigate problems in the process of natural gas extraction. And understand there is no energy source that is without issues and risks - we must act like adults and not shut out one source, to then cause another, more polluting source, to be used.  In the power plant game, it’s primarily a choice of fracking or would you prefer to have acid rain and coal ash pollution?

If the United States wants to be a world power, with strong manufacturing and enough energy to fuel our economy, alternative energy, as yet, cannot fill the need of our country.  However, the magnitude of power produced from solar and wind would be a perfect match to augment smaller power needs such as homes, small businesses, and vehicles. So instead of having huge fields of solar panels and vast areas of wind turbines, which have unintended environmental issues, why not push the intelligent use of solar capturing roofs and windows and wind turbines designed into the buildings themselves?

So this brings me to the future of energy for this country. We desperately need an energy source that does not pollute, nor produce long term nuclear waste, and yet has enough power to fuel the world, without the need of costly and deadly wars. The energy source I refer to is the ultimate solar power: nuclear fusion. It is the opposite of nuclear fission, our current system of nuclear power--it is the fusing of two hydrogen atoms into a helium atom, with the release of a gorgeous amount of energy. There is no dangerous nuclear waste, taking thousands of years to decay and which, by the way, is currently piling up at nuclear fission plants around the country. The exciting part is that there is a world consortium and other groups, which are working towards developing a working nuclear fusion reactor in Europe. The hope is, that within fifty years, power from nuclear fusion may become a reality.  We need to support this work with our voices and votes, and focus politicians and industry to strive towards this goal of energy independence.

In addition, I believe we must plan ahead and build better energy grids, figure out whether electric or hydrogen fuel vehicles make the most sense (or both), in other words, let’s be thinking ahead and dream of a world without smog, with clean water, and no more global wars over petroleum energy.


K.E. Lanning